Flannery O’Connor: The Sacrificial Love of the Priesthood

In a letter to Dr. Spivey (19th August 1959), Flannery O’Connor returns to an issue that she seems to have had to explain to him many a time (he seemed to be quite a stubborn man in my reading of the matter) – namely the problem of the sinfulness and ignorance of some Church members (including clergy), and the difference between the charism of infallibility given to the Church and the obvious fallibility of some of her representatives:

Sin is sin whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests, or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us. I think of the Protestant churches as being composed of people who are good, and I don’t mean this ironically. Most of the Protestants I know are good, if narrow sometimes. But the Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and there is a constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good…

…As for the neurotic priests, neurosis is an illness and no one should be condemned for it. It takes a strong person to meet the responsibilities of the priesthood. They take vows for life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and there are very few defections. Most of the priests I know are not neurotic but most are unimaginative and overworked. Also the education they get at the seminaries leaves much to be desired.

The Habit of Being (1988), pp.346-347, Farrar Straus and Giroux.

            As I said, this was a topic that, in her correspondence with Spivey, she had to return to again and again, each time patiently and painstakingly explaining how the ignorance, neurosis, frailty or even wickedness of Catholics does nothing to undermine what it is that the Church teaches and sets forward as a standard for her members to aim towards. To use a poor analogy, such criticisms are like blaming an examining board when several of the students taking its exams fail dismally.

As I said, this is a poor analogy (not least because one could in part blame the teachers of that class, and catechesis is indeed also a responsibility of the Church), but I think the general point is clear – one cannot blame the standards because people fail to meet them. Nor is asking the Church to lower her standards going to help – this will only result (as we can also see in contemporary schooling) in doing her children a disservice by allowing them to coast along in life and not reach the heights they possibly could if inspired and energised to do so. If someone learning French found it difficult, and was then told they could skip the hard bits and have the certificate anyway, they wouldn’t be thanking their tutors when lost in Paris with no money and asking for directions.

Moreover, in that letter to Dr. Spivey, she counsels him to show charity towards priests, explaining how demanding a life it can be and how little one can know of the strains they are under. In another letter, this time to Cecil Dawkins (9th December 1958), where O’Connor also discusses the difference between the Church’s charism of infallibility and the fallibility of individual priests, she goes on to relate beautifully the (often unnoticed) sacrificial love that goes into a consecrated priestly life:

Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When she shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one. I agree with you that you shouldn’t have to go back centuries to find Catholic thought, and to be sure, you don’t. But you are not going to find the highest principles of Catholicism exemplified on the surface of life nor the highest Protestant principles either. It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.

ibid, p.307-308.

            The first time I read this passage, I was struck not only by the great insight and charity shown by O’Connor herself, but also by the essential content of what she was saying. I had never before really considered just how much men give up when they enter the priesthood, and the love (both of God and His Church) that is required to take this step. When a man becomes a priest, his life is no longer his own (to paraphrase Ven. Fulton Sheen); it is given over to the service of Christ’s Body – to make Him present on the altar at each Mass, to pray for his flock, to be at their beck and call every hour of every day, whether he is needed for simple advice or to deliver the Last Rites in the small hours.

The priestly candidate entering into this life, knows, if not wholly at first, certainly after a few years post-ordination, that to do all this and be there for the People of God in this way he cannot rely on his own strength. He must know his shortcomings more than others, and unite his will daily with the love of Christ, who alone can bear him through a life dedicated to the service of others. In the same way as Saint Paul described his ministry, a priest must be ‘as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ (2 Corinthians 6:10) – and they can only do this through the love of Christ, whose ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ (ibid 12:9).

Of course, the priestly office can and has been misused, and much has been written on this in various other places – all I will add is that this is indeed a great tragedy, though being addressed and rectified with a greater degree of thoroughness and care than in any other institution – but I would submit that the people who have done so did not, on the whole, recognise the sacrificial nature of their vocation. The ability of a priest to confect the Eucharist, forgive sins, etc is of course not dependent upon the character of the person holding that office, but the ability of a priest to give up his life in order to serve God and His people most certainly is, and thankfully the priests who recognise this by far outweigh those who do not.

In O’Connor’s letter to Cecil Dawkins however, she was really addressing the intellectual shortcomings of priests, and the inability of some to give answers to the hard questions posed by parishioners or inquirers about the Faith. Her advice was that, when confronted with clergy who do not meet our criteria of what a priest should be able to do, we should have the charity (and humility) to understand the pressures they are under, and not judge them by measures they were not meant to be judged by.

Yes, it is great if one’s local priest is highly educated, with an agile mind and up to date with contemporary social issues. But if they are not, the teachings of the Church still remain – if we do not find the answers we are looking for, the Catechism is easily available, and there are plenty of resources for helping us to understand the Faith better. What we should really be asking ourselves is whether the man we are talking to is fulfilling the duties he has actually been called to fulfil – is he serving his parish, is he there for you when you need support, does he deliver the sacraments to the sick or dying day and night, is he holy and does he inspire holiness in others?

If he is fulfilling any or just a few of these things to a good degree, then we can be thankful. Love, truth and holiness are what the world needs now (both in general and from the Church in particular), and it is my belief that there are a lot more of these things in our priests than most people (particularly the media) give them credit for. Thank God for the priesthood and for the love that helps them to do their job, often unnoticed and unthanked, day by day.

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5 thoughts on “Flannery O’Connor: The Sacrificial Love of the Priesthood

  1. Thank you so much Michael; you have brought out many vitally important aspects of the priesthood, and first and foremost must be the one in the title, ‘The SACRIFICIAL LOVE of the Priesthood’. It is hardly ever mentioned anywhere – I don’t know why – and yet it is at the root of the holy priestly vocation.

    My parents told me that when they were young there used to be a deep respect and honour shown to priests, even the rather bumbling country priest. The men chosen by God to consecrate His Sacred Body and Blood and forgive sins (more than any of the other sacraments) were special, singled out, and Catholics were well aware of this. Then everything changed after Vatican II when the ‘universal priesthood of all believers’ was highlighted to such a degree that it obscured and lessened the SACRIFICIAL priesthood of the chosen few. A sort of chummy, slap on the back, “you-are-one-of-us” attitude took over, and this did the priestly vocation no favours.
    In some sort of strange way, denying (or at least watering down) the unique, sublime, and indispensable role of priests, faith also suffered in consequence. The disastrous post-Vatican II period of the late sixties and seventies (from which we have in no way recovered) is clear proof of this.

  2. Most priests I have known have been/are extremely well-educated and intelligent men. To be able to get through the demanding level of studies required before Ordination would be impossible for anyone of low intelligence.

    But ‘holiness of life’ is by far the most important prerequisite for a priest – that I imagine is what the seminary directors will look for in the men training for the priesthood.

    Isn’t it amazing to think that the very patron saint of all priests, St. John Vianney, (Cure d’Ars) nearly didn’t make it to the priesthood because of his difficulties with some of the studies, namely Latin? What a devastating loss to the Church it would have been if he – surely the holiest of priests – had been turned away because of this hitch!

    • Thank you for these comments Kathleen – I couldn’t agree more!

      It is certainly the case that there has been an overemphasis of the priesthood of all believers, and I think that in the long run this can only serve to undermine the Holy Eucharist itself (which, as you say, can only undermine the rest of the Faith). It really wouldn’t surprise me if, in a few years time, there will be people calling for lay presidency at the altar!

      As for the overall legacy of Vatican II, Ven. Fulton Sheen had some great words to say about this, namely that whenever there is a great Council (and so a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit) in the Church, the spirit of lies ‘ups his game’, so to speak, in response. And there were plenty of people waiting in the wings at the time who were more in tune with this spirit than the Holy Spirit (e.g.; Kung, Schillebeecx)! Unfortunately, whilst the Council was meant to let the Church out into the world, there were (and are) far too many who saw it as an opportunity to let the world into the Church. Fr. Barron has done some great videos on this.

      Good call with the mention of Saint John Vianney! He is an excellent example both of holiness of life, and of someone who was concerned above all with the most important thing – the state of his parishioners’ souls. Too often nowadays I think ‘well-being’ is placed first and foremost though.

      Also, I totally agree that there are many well-educated and intelligent priests out there, and I was a bit worried that in not emphasising this in my post I may have given the wrong impression? Anyway, it is certainly the case that although holiness is paramount, this does nothing to detract from what is a very high standard of training and intelligence amongst priests. What O’Connor said in her letter could perhaps be re-applied to the case of those who do not hear what they want to hear or are used to hearing from the surrounding culture (and the ‘standards’ they have learned there) – what do you think?

      • Thanks Michael. Oh no, in no way did you give the impression that priests were NOT men of great learning, only that they suffered from human weaknesses and failings like all men. This is absolutely correct of course. Flannery O’Connor was emphasising this too, and also showing where improvements could be made, like in seminary training. No man would ever become a priest if he thought that he should be SINLESS in order to be a good priest!

        I think you are right when you say that “asking the Church to lower her standards” would not “help”. It is precisely this attitude of leniency among so many members of the clergy in the West today that has caused such dissent and lukewarmness among the faithful! “Be perfect”, Our Lord said, knowing that was raising the goal too high for us… but that this should be our aim, our wish. Soppy platitudes offer nothing attractive or desirable; proclaiming the fullness of Truth (even the “unpleasant” ones) is something worth fighting for. Tough challenges and a sense of purpose are what ignite our passions and desires to overcome sin and grow in holiness. They also fire us up with love for God, His Blessed Mother and our Holy Church.

        Look at the vocation crisis. It is interesting to note how it is the more traditional (read “orthodox”) religious orders where vocations flourish – not the liberal (read “largely unorthodox”) ones.

        Yet priests who have the courage and holiness to be totally faithful to the Magisterium of the Church’s teaching come in for much criticism from the “world”… that has largely (as you infer) sold its soul to the “author of lies”. This is a real Via Crucis for them, and in their human frailness they desperately need us, the laity’s, help, support and prayers.
        support, help and prayers.

    • Oh good, I am glad! 🙂

      It is certainly interesting to reflect upon the difference between orthodox and liberal religious orders, and I think this could be applied to churches in general – the mainline liberal Protestant churches are bleeding members because, quite rightly, their parishioners have recognised that if they are being offered nothing more than a Christianised secular humanism in church, there is not much point in using up their Sunday mornings!

      I also find it encouraging that, despite the flack he got from the media, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI seemed to strike a chord with young Catholics in Europe – it was those of an older generation that had been part of the sexual revolution etc that were badmouthing him. Obviously there is still a huge issue in Europe with secularisation and diminishing congregations, but I do find hope in that many young people are rejecting the shallow individualism of their forebears and have responded with great vigour to the more substantial and ultimately hopeful picture of life (and therefore of humanity) offered by the Church.

      Hopefully something similar will happen within the Church too, and the many orthodox young priests coming through now will be able to exert an influence that has for too long been held by those enamoured of the liberal theology that gained so much ground post-Vatican II. As you say, it will be tough, and they will need the support, help and prayers of the laity, but I do see some light on the horizon 🙂

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